Prosatio Silban and the Purloined Eyebrows

(A sequel to Prosatio Silban and the Revealer of Secrets.)

CLOTHES DO NOT ALWAYS MAKE the man. However, they, or at least their concomitants, can certainly help.

Prosatio Silban rolled out of his galleywagon’s sleeping-berth, yawned, scratched, and stood up on the ornate braided rug. He had parked his portable-home-and-livelihood the previous evening in one of epicurean Pormaris’ more eclectic marketplaces, in advance of accommodating Heir Second Vajang Chorl’s annual Dependent-Welcoming Festivity, and was looking forward to tomorrow’s task and the substantial coin it would bring. He dressed with some haste (green kneebreeches, white tunic, grey long-vest, black shoes and fez), his thoughts coalescing around the acquisition of ingredients for dishes and garnishes, and automatically reached for the artificial eyebrows that were an important piece of his daily costume.

But where were they?

Puzzled, the beefy cook searched on, then around, their customary place: a small collapsible night-table outside his berth’s black silk curtain, where sat the thick codex he was reading (Barbatus the Elder’s Commonwell Excursions), a ceramic pitcher, and a water-glass. Nothing else.

His consternation increased when he saw that his galleywagon’s door was ajar.

His consternation increased when he saw that his galleywagon’s door was ajar. It was not uncommon for him to open its top half before retiring, especially in the secure markets of the Uulian Commonwell’s Three Cities, so that he could better hear the local clock-tower’s on-the-hour chime. But the previous evening had been a cold one, so he had closed and latched both halves against the lacustrine island-city’s foggy night-chill.

Scanning the galleywagon’s interior – Perhaps they blew away somewhere when the door opened? he thought. And perhaps something else is missing? – Prosatio Silban’s eye fell upon an inscribed vellum square sitting in the exact center of his preparation counter. The words were written in a semi-familiar but unsigned hand and immediately tied a tight, pit-of-the-stomach knot.

“You will now have to reclaim your prior occupation,” it read. “Too bad about what used to be your present one. My advice to you: leave Pormaris at once.”

Now, to understand why this is important, you must know that Prosatio Silban wasn’t always the Cook For Any Price. In a previous life-moment, he had served the six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods as a Sacreant – one of those Uulian religious functionaries who oversaw much of the Commonwell’s cultural life, and whose investiture included an all-over and permanent depilatory bath. For a variety of reasons, he had foresworn ministering to his people’s souls in favor of their palates and gullets; and in order to stave off the inevitable questions provoked by his complete and utter hairlessness, the self-defrocked holyman had commissioned a pair of grey mouse-fur eyebrows from a discreet maker in a small village near cosmopolitan Soharis.

But Deepford is dayrides away, the cook thought. And I need them by tomorrow morning, if not sooner. Who could have done such a thing?

He closed his eyes and ticked off a mental list of possible perpetrators. Tangeo Adris? Georio the Soupster? Veniia Harklon? That upstart young man from the Blue Boar? No, no, no and no…wait a moment. What about Filio Tharl, Heir Second Vajang’s house cook? He was a long-ago rival-turned-warm-acquaintance, but this event is in his own kitchen. He’s a hard worker, and would no doubt be happy to have the night off; happier still to be rid of any competent and dislodging competition. Yes. He must have stolen my brows. I suppose I shall just have to steal them back.

* * *

“O Galien the All-Mother; Maklun, Dealer of Equitable and Long-Armed Justice; and Takavi, God of Furtive Scuffling: hear my plea and grant my boon,” Prosatio Silban prayed as he knelt on the rug. “You have greatly favored me in the past, and I am vastly grateful for Your attentions. I beg that you favor me again and let me find that which helps me to do Your works in Your world in Your way. Please: Help me to discover whoever purloined my rightful property; not so that I can punish them, for I leave that up to You, but that I may find it again and carry out the happy tasks You set before me. I shall make known Your kindnesses wherever and whenever I tell this tale of your great magnanimity. This I affirm.”

He waited, but nothing – neither mental image nor name – came to his mind as he had hoped. Sometimes, the answer to a prayer is ‘no,’ he thought, and grimaced as he rose to his feet. I cannot dare show my naked face in the market – and now is not the season for masquerades.

The stimulating beverage often helped him think, and this was a situation calling for helpful thought.

Not knowing what else to do, he decided to brew a hot cup of yava. The stimulating beverage often helped him think, and this was a situation calling for helpful thought. As a pot of water came to the boil on his fatberry-oil stove, he reflected on Filio Tharl. If only I had time to walk Pormaris’ bustling streets in search of his home. We last parted on good terms, but there is still something so…unpredictable about the man, that I am not sure I altogether trust him.

The smell of bitter mint filled the galleywagon as Prosatio Silban decanted the aromatic drink into a ceramic cup and added a measure of purple bees’-honey. As he sniffed the warm steam, he noticed that the rising wisps bent toward the galleywagon’s door. Intrigued, he opened it wide; the steam thickened perceptibly as it led outside, down the galleywagon steps, and into one of the market’s makeshift lanes.

There is more to this than my eyes can see, the cook thought. He closed the door behind him and followed the vaporous trail.

Soon the marketplace was far behind, and he passed into one of the city’s better residential districts, this one mostly consisting of one-story, single-family affairs. Among the opulent rainbow of painted and elegant architecture, one stood out for its understated outer décor. Prosatio Silban’s heartbeat quickened as he noticed the front door’s name-plaque: Filio Tharl: Chief Cook to the House of Vajang. He was about to knock, when he saw that the fragrant steam led past Filio Tharl’s and down the street. Mystified, he continued to follow its lead.

Presently, he came to row upon row of two- and three-story brick tenement homes. They were less grand than Filio Tharl’s, but still stylish. The cook gaped as the beguiling steam vanished before one building with a yellow door and no name-plaque. Who could this be? he wondered.

As if in answer, the door opened, and a pallid, well-dressed man in his mid-twenties smirked at him from within the doorway. “So, cook,” he purred. “You found me.”

“The ‘Revealer of Secrets,’” Prosatio Silban murmured. “I ought to have guessed by the threat you left in my galleywagon after you robbed it.”

“Tut-tut,” the man said. “I robbed you of nothing but your tangible reputation. As for your intangible reputation, that will be robbed tomorrow night – unless you leave Pormaris for all time, and that promptly. This city cannot amicably contain both of us.”

“I suppose this is your revenge for my having bested you when last we met?”

“You call it ‘revenge.’ I call it ‘business.’”

“No matter what you call it, you are profiting off the discomfiture of others.”

“Those ‘others’ ought not to have done anything discomfiting in the first place. I am merely the Flickering Gods’ way of bringing that point to my clients’ attention.”

“’Clients?’ You mean ‘prey.’”

The Revealer of Secrets spread his palms and grinned. “All life feeds off other life.”

The Revealer of Secrets spread his palms and grinned. “All life feeds off other life.”

“Bosh. Someday, you will regret having chosen your particular sort of feeding – if not at my hands, then at another’s. I only hope to witness that day.”

“Well. If it happens here in Pormaris, which I doubt, you won’t see it at all.”

* * *

“Pelvhi, I need to see a wizard.”

Prosatio Silban was at the bar of his favorite Pormaris haunt, “Pelvhi’s Chopping-House,” where the City of Gourmands’ professional hospitality workers met for excellent food, tall ale-mugs and understanding ears. These culinary commiserations were presided over by Pelvhi, a short and wiry former cook who had worked her way up through sculleries of the wealthy and infamous to her present secretly famous station. She had known the Cook For Any Price for longer than either would admit, and he often sought her advice and comfort when the occasion warranted.

“’A wizard,’” Pelvhi repeated. “For what purpose?”

With broad strokes, the cook painted a verbal picture of his current situation. “I am usually adept at finding creative solutions for self-created problems,” he finished. “But this seems to be beyond my own resourcefulness.”

“I do not blame you – either for your predicament, which is no one’s fault or business, or for your mental dead-end,” she said. “But the few wizards I know, though capable, do not wish to be known. Their vocation is frowned upon within the Commonwell, and contacting them requires the greatest delicacy and discretion. For that reason, I cannot disclose to you their identities or whereabouts. However, I would be happy to play the liaison for you. What did you have in mind?”

Prosatio Silban creased his brow. “Several potential resolutions have presented themselves to me, from outright riddance to subtle intervention. But I do not know what is within your acquaintances’ scope of practice, or even ethics.”

Pelvhi considered for a moment, then smiled. “It will be done. Continue your activities as normal – and anticipate the unanticipatable.”

* * *

It had been a trying day and a half for Prosatio Silban, to say the least. He had worn a low-brimmed porter’s cap and a pair of oversized smoked lenses while he did the celebration’s market-going and detail-arranging, and so far had not met with any compromising circumstances. He did not like feeling that all eyes – or at least one particular pair – were scrutinizing him as he went about his business, and fabricated the excuse of a plaguing head-ache to explain away his disguise. So far this had met with empathetic murmurs and whispered good wishes, but he could not escape a gnawing guilt at having to uphold the pretense. Still, I suppose it is for a good cause, he thought, self-preservation being the most compelling one.

At noon, he entered the Heir Second’s kitchen to commence his tasks, first paying respects to his employer. “Surely you should retire to your bed, Master Cook,” m’Lord Vajang said in a kind voice. “I appreciate your devotion to duty, but if you are that impaired, well…”

“But in truth, I can either lie abed knowing I let down a client, or be here pleasing one. I choose the latter.”

“I am grateful for your sensitivity, m’Lord,” the cook said. “But in truth, I can either lie abed knowing I let down a client, or be here pleasing one. I choose the latter.”

“Truly, you are the Cook for Any Price,” the noble marveled. “Pray proceed at your discretion.”

And so it went in the bustling kitchen, hour by slow-passing hour, until the time came for Prosatio Silban to introduce to an appreciative crowd in his host’s well-appointed and lavish dining room the result of his happy toil. A pleasant amalgam of sweet and savory aromas filled the chamber, and various of the Heir Second’s grateful dependents in different modes of dress – some in silks, some in patched rags – stood, sat or lounged at a number of cloth-colored tables. All wore expressions of polite expectancy.

“Everyone, this is the architect of tonight’s banquet. He has braved personal discomfort to bring us a feast to be remembered,” enthused m’Lord Vajang. “May I present to you the master cook, Prosatio Silban!”

The object of their adulation bowed and smiled, receiving their compliments with self-effacing grace. But as the cook straightened to begin detailing the evening’s gastronomic accomplishment, he caught sight of a pair of smirking eyes lurking in the back of the room.

By the sustaining teats of the All-Mother! he thought. Alas! has the wizardry failed?

Prosatio Silban’s nemesis wormed his way through the beaming crowd until he was standing next to the Heir Second. The Revealer of Secrets stretched out one hand, in which lay Prosatio Silban’s eyebrows, and raised the other one for silence. He cleared his throat.

“M’Lords, m’Ladies, and other guests of our most esteemed host,” he began. “I have something to tell you about this so-called cook.”

“About his talent?” asked a tall and elderly woman draped in black.

“His devotion to his clients?” asked a man in dark green hunter’s garb.

“His matchless humility?” asked m’Lady Vajang Usta.

“None of these,” the sallow extortionist said. “For he is not as he seems. I am here to tell you…to tell you…ah, to tell you.” He turned on the assembly a bewildered look. “What was I going to tell you? And…wait. Where am I?”

“Who are you?” asked m’Lord Vajang.

The Revealer of Secrets dropped the eyebrows and gazed at his shoes. “I…I am…I don’t remember,” he mumbled.

“Then you do not belong here,” the noble said, and gestured twice.

As two burly house-guards escorted out the one-time blackmailer, Prosatio Silban felt a brief stab of regret mingled with relief as he carefully pocketed the abandoned disguise. Was it truly necessary to rob him of his memory? he thought. Ah, well, at least he cannot now harm anyone else. It’s the old case of ‘the biter bit’ – but harder.

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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